Blocks, Strips, Strings & Half-Squares Mary Lee Bendolph 2005 Cotton, 84″ x 81″

What I noticed first when seeing Amy Sherald’s 72″ x 60″ portrait of the First Lady was a mountain of Mondrian-like gown depicting the high fashion, colorful clothes that Michelle often wears. I was then drawn to her arms and shoulders, whose grace and physical strength have been viewed so often by the entire world.   Finally, my eyes were drawn to her head and face. It seemed smaller and different in form and didn’t look like the Michelle I knew. It wasn’t until I read articles about this painting that I noticed her face was painted in grey scale.

                            Why did Michelle choose this artist and who is Amy Sherald? It turns out that Barack also wanted her to do his portrait but when approached, she told Michelle she really wanted to paint her. Sherald, 44, is from Baltimore and, though she recently won a national prize and Joan Mitchell and Pollock Krasner grants, was relatively unknown until this painting. Like so many artists, she waited on tables and took out loans to pay her mortgage in order to continue painting.

                American Black

Misery made Beautiful

Sherald’s earlier works were autobiographical but, following years of health problems which ultimately led to a heart transplant at age 39, she began to focus on local people she met on the streets in her Baltimore neighborhood. Her models are exclusively black and wear ordinary clothing. Her style of painting is called “stylistic realism” where the model is asked not to smile.

     Miss Everything – Unsuppressed Deliverance, 2014, 54″ x 43″, oil on canvas  

Freeing Herself Was One Thing, Taking Ownership of That Freed Self Was Another,                                             2015, 54″ x 43″, Oil on canvas

The First Lady’s portrait was done in two sittings. Sherald worked from photos and admitted she felt shy as she examined Michelle in order to figure out which angles she needed for the photos. In response to people’s comments that the painting does not look like Michelle, the artist reminds us that everyone sees uniquely and, more importantly in this instance, that “everybody is interested in the Obamas, in all kinds of ways and in all different levels.” She believes she captured “a contemplative, graceful woman who understands her place in history.” Sherald says her approach is conceptual, that the Obamas are pioneers, symbols, and that she sought to translate Michelle in that way. Sherald did not want to emphasize race in the portrait and, to some people, that is inexcusable. Sherald said she chose the grey scale skin color because she wanted the subject of race to be in the background and also “it looks great with bright colors.” The color makes viewers work to connect but also gives the image an iconic feel.

                                                                              First Lady

Barack’s portrait by Kehinde Wiley is also dramatically unusual and Sherald said, “it matters that these portraits are so different because one thing happened in history that wasn’t supposed to happen. You know, there’s a continuum and a stop….so 300 years from now, these portraits will speak to that moment with the intensity that is necessary to bring forth the truth of what happened and why they were there.”